Rabbi Jeffrey B Kamins OAM Yom Kippur

Yom Kippur and the journey of the heart

A prayer of Moshe, the man of God.  “Adonai, you have been our refuge in every generation.  Before the mountains came into being, and before You brought forth the earth and the world, from eternity to eternity, you are everlasting God.  You turn humans to dust, You decreed, ‘Return, you mortals.’  For in Your sight a thousand years are like yesterday that has past, like a watch in the night.  You engulf humans in sleep; at daybreak they are like grass that renews itself; at daybreak it flourishes anew; by dark it withers and dries up.…So teach us to number our days, that we may acquire a heart of wisdom.”  (Psalm 90:1-6, 12)  Teach us to count our days…“Our destiny is mysterious in its details, but death is our destiny, the fate of every person we know and love.”  It is our fate as well.  (Leonard Gordon, as quoted in Lev Shalem, p. 315).That is the resounding message of Yom Kippur.  No food, no water, no sexual relations, robed in white like our funeral shrouds.  Death awaits, so make each day worth living, make each day count.  And the other resounding message of Yom Kippur? Acquire a heart of wisdom.  That heart of wisdom is acquired through the process of teshuvah – recognition, remorse, restitution and resolve.  Teach us to count our days that we may acquire a heart of wisdom, a heart of forgiveness and love.

Yom Kippur, with teshuvah at its core,  invites us on a journey from being hard-hearted, to broken hearted to living with a heart of wisdom.  We have seen many hard-hearted tyrants throughout the generations, beginning with Pharaoh.  And in these days, we suffer Putin, Khameni and Xi Jinping, among others.  Hard-heartedness seems to be a sign of our times, certainly evoked by our leaders, but do they not just reflect the values of society? One does not have to be a world leader to be hard-hearted.  How else can one explain domestic violence, sexual abuse and bullying? Or racism and antisemitism? And on this night, when all our prayers and confessionals are said in the plural, we acknowledge that we may not be the perpetrators, but standing idly by, putting all these problems in the “too hard basket” or blithely dismissing them as “woke” is hard-hearted as well.  It is our Australia that has locked up refugees in indefinite detention, both here and offshore, for the best years of their lives, unbelievably cruel and inhuman punishment.  In our name and on our watch.  Hard-hearted.  The First Nations of this land suffer structural racism as do many people of colour in our world. The First Nations of Australia are the most incarcerated people by proportion on the planet.  Do we really think they are an innately criminal people? Their children are alienated from their families at unprecedented rates.  Do we really think that they don’t love their children? Like the Palestinians don’t? How often have we heard that said in our community? Hard-hearted.  The problems of the world are extremely complex, but to be hard-hearted is a choice, a decision we make to not recognise the other.  And sometimes that other is right within your family or has been one of your dearest friends. Yom Kippur is all about recognising our responsibility for the suffering in this world, for the pain of the other and with remorse, moving forward with forgiveness and love.

The following teaching about Teshuvah has been attributed to the late, great first chief rabbi of British Mandatory Palestine, Harav Avraham Yitzchak Kook.  He writes: “Every sin, even the least egregious, plants within a person a dislike or hatred for some aspect of existence. When a person sins, he or she enters the world of separation; reality is comprehended as a series of isolated moments.  In that vision, evil is a thing in itself; it has a negative, destructive value.  But when one does teshuvah out of love, then immediately there sparks within that person the light of the world of unity, in which everything is seen as a single organism.” In other words, Kook teaches, as we do teshuvah we understand how our actions impact on existence itself; they are not separate from it.  We can continue on our hard-hearted ways of othering, or allow love to shine again through recognising another and connecting with them – and the only way to do that is through deep introspection, understanding the impact of our actions or inactions upon others. It is only as we do true teshuvah, when we recognise our wrongdoings and have remorse for them that we can truly transform our lives, our relationships and our society.  The Vidui, or confession, is the beginning of this process.  Note the tradition of tapping, or beating, one’s heart as the words of the vidui are recited.  Slowly, gradually, we can make little cracks in our hardened hearts, and we let the light of healing and the love through connecting flow in. 

A metaphor.  A story is told of Rabbi Akiva’s beginnings.  Rabbi Akiva - one of the greatest teachers in the milennia of Jewish history, one of the ten martyrs we recall as part of our Yom Kippur service.  “It is said: Up to the age of forty, he had not yet studied a thing. One time, while standing by the mouth of a well in Lydda, he inquired, ‘Who hollowed out this stone?’ and was told, ‘Akiva, haven't you read that “water wears away stone” (Job 14:19)? - it was water falling upon it constantly, day after day.’ At that, Rabbi Akiva asked himself: Is my mind harder than this stone? I will go and study at least one section of Torah.”  (Avot D’Rabbi Natan 6:2).   Beginning at the age of 40, day by day, section by section, he went from no knowledge to becoming one of our greatest sages.  Are our hearts harder than that stone?  Water falling on it day after day.  Repentance raining upon our hearts, breaking our hearts open.  

Our Talmudic sages teach: We learned in a mishna (Pirkei Avot 2:10) that Rabbi Eliezer says: Repent one day before your death. Rabbi Eliezer’s students asked him: But does a person know the day on which he will die? He said to them: All the more so this is a good piece of advice, and one should repent today lest he die tomorrow; and by following this advice one will spend his entire life in a state of repentance.  (Shabbat 153a) Every day we should be doing this practice of teshuvah (it’s in our daily prayers) - but we don’t, and so our hearts harden.  Just as Rosh HaShanah comes to remind us of the Shofar of Sinai and our commitment to the covenant, so too does Yom Kippur come to remind us of our death, our destiny, and the power of teshuvah. Teshuvah - along with tefillah and tzedakah - makes our lives meaningful and significant; it shapes our destiny. Hard-hearted? Whole hearted?  As we number our days, as we confess our responsibility for the state of affairs in which we live, we break open hearts hardened by apathy, greed and fear.  Ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu – let your heart break; broken-hearted, we allow ourselves to feel remorse, to hear the cry of those in pain, to know their suffering.  We enable ourselves to see life from the perspective of the other.   As our tradition teaches, “true sacrifices to God are a broken spirit, a contrite and broken heart.” (Psalm 51:19).

These ten days of teshuva have been guiding us, through scripture and prayer, to break open our hardened-hearts and walk a path of forgiveness and love. If the first steps of teshuvah are recognition and remorse, as practiced in the vidui, the next steps are restitution and resolve.  The teaching in Psalms, “God heals our broken hearts and binds up our wounds”  (Psalm 147:3) is not through grace, but through the process of teshuvah.  The next steps of teshuvah, restitution and resolve, heal our hearts and make them whole again.  Restitution - to make right by others; resolve - to do right by others.  That is the true heart of wisdom.  

Every faith tradition has guidance as to what it means to live with a heart of wisdom.  Our tradition has thousands of years of collective insight.  The first teaching comes from the story of the covenant between God and Avraham, whom we call our father and recognise as the founder of our faith, who is told to “walk before God and be blameless.”  To walk before God means to have one’s conscience always fully present, to recognise that we are all connected within the one, each life sacred and vested with human dignity.  To be blameless means to be whole hearted and not to strip that dignity away from the other. As the Psalmist teaches: “Keep your tongue from evil and your lips from deceitful speech; keep away from evil and do good, seek peace and pursue it.” (Psalm 34:14-15).  Word and deed.  From prophets to sages, rabbis to exemplars, we know what is required of us.  Justice and loving-kindness, humility and generosity of spirit.

A refrain from the great 12th century philosopher poet, Yehuda HaLevi, encapsulates our path of heart: If I could see God’s face within my heart …and if we could actually imagine God’s face within our heart, our machzor continues, then: “I’d see the human face in a thousand acts of mercy – the one who gives bread to the hungry and shelters the lost, who hears the voice of grief and makes room for the stranger; who brings relief to the blind, the bent, the unjustly imprisoned; and is true to the essence of holy work: resisting evil, healing brokenness, easing pain; and, in the end, forgiving ourselves and others as God forgives us. 

Yom Kippur is the ultimate day of forgiveness and love, of learning what it means to live with a heart of wisdom.  So may our hardened-hearts break open and may our broken hearts bring healing.  We resolve to walk a path of goodness and kindness, humility and generosity. We must repent the day before we die, and with that day being the greatest of mysteries, then: we practice teshuvah this Yom Kippur, and then tomorrow, and the day after and the day after again. Let us learn to number our days to live with a heart of wisdom. Then it may be said of us when we die: “mark the whole-hearted and regard the person of integrity; for their legacy shall be wholeness and peace, shalom”.  (Psalm 37:37)

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